Since the start, I’ve felt nothing but love from this house,” recalls Natasha Trethewey of her Evanston abode. The façade immediately called to her with its Corinthian columns, double-story veranda and fleur-de-lis stained-glass window tucked into the pediment like a jewel on a crown. “It looked like the Antebellum houses in Mississippi, or up St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans where I used to ride the streetcar with my mother as a girl. It felt like having a bit of my South in the Midwest.”
Natasha, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former U.S. poet laureate, and her husband, historian Brett Gadsden, who specializes in 20th-century African American history, were relocating to Chicago after accepting positions at Northwestern University. Finding the historic gem in their target neighborhood felt fated. Yet six months after move-in, their faith in fate was tested when, on Thanksgiving morning, the residence was engulfed in flames. Fortunately, firefighters prevailed before Natasha’s attic study and, within it, priceless heirlooms and manuscripts were lost forever.
The gutted interiors were devastating, but the fact that everyone and everything dearest to them were spared—and the outer shell was untouched—held meaning. The couple resolved to build back better, tasking designer Guinevere Johnson, architect Steve Liska and general contractor David Heitman with stepping inside the mind of the home’s Victorian-era architect, Harvey L. Page. That question of “What would Page do today?” would guide the two-year restoration.
A first order: Bringing the 1897 home to code, a seemingly unglamorous task that resulted in glamorous updates, nonetheless. Notably, Liska reconceived the diminutive, spiral back staircase as a prominent passageway and, in doing so, reset the procession of second floor rooms to align along a single corridor with continuous, front-to-back sight lines. Added turn-of-the-century grandeur imbues the front-of-house, where the architect enlarged the entryway, trimming it with an elliptical fan window and Neoclassical corbels disguising support beams for the upstairs alterations. Similar nostalgia was celebrated in the transition from dining to kitchen, where Liska saw an opportunity for a pantry pass-through. “It’s a very historical element,” he explains. “It’s a Classical progression from the dining room to the kitchen where you get this wonderful squeezing of space opening to grandness.”
After restoring any salvageable original elements, including the living room’s walnut mantle and Doric order columns, Liska and Johnson teamed up across designs for millwork and molding, lighting and flow. “Because the house had such a strong language, it was easier to interpret the details,” says Liska, to which Johnson adds, “The idea was to have it feel very American and open, but with French and Victorian influences.”
Meanwhile, New Orleans, the hometown of Natasha’s late mother, was the leading inspiration for Johnson’s soulful interiors. The designer paid the city a visit early on in the process, returning with a bevy of lighting from storied French Quarter gaslight brand Bevolo. Another homage: Damask textiles—a nod to Natasha’s grandmother who was a drapery seamstress—which feature in every room. But nowhere is the NOLA connection more poignant than the attic’s stained-glass window with its fleur-de-lis (a symbol of the city and its slave resistance, as it was an image branded upon runaway slaves), which Brett meticulously restored and set aglow with lighting.
A final must for an academic household? “As many libraries as possible,” notes Johnson. There are four in total, most prominently, a cozy memorial library housing Natasha’s late father’s book collection just off the entry. Set against the designer’s palette of restful grays, several generations of tomes hold pride of place at last.
Johnson credits the finished success to a cast of kindred spirits: “Natasha, Brett, Steve and I believe one must have a sense of history in order to move forward. All of us pulled from historical references, and not just in the visual aspects, but in the feeling of respect that permeates throughout.”
There is an unspoken communion between this home, design team and owners. “After the fire, there was a moment when I thought, ‘How can we go back when the house did this to us?’ But then I realized, ‘No, the house did this to us,’ ” says Natasha, an audible smile coloring her voice. “I feel this house is very happy that we are its caretakers. And, even more than that, I feel my ancestors are here with me.”
For more behind-the-scenes details, watch our DesignTV by SANDOW interview with designer Guinevere Johnson.